Artist-in-Residence combines political activism with comedy
The Santa Clara
November 9, 2017
Some entertainers aim just to provoke. Others, however, want to provoke with a purpose.
Santa Clara’s Frank Sinatra Artist-in-Residence W. Kamau Bell aims to do just that. As a popular political commentator, comedian, author and TV host, he has the clout to instigate conversation and even change at Santa Clara.
“Bell will have a strong physical presence on campus, mentoring and engaging our students, faculty and the community,” according to the university web page for the artist residency program.
On the CNN web page for his show, Bell is described as a “comedian and political provocateur.” However, when asked about so-called “provocateurs” from across the aisle, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, he responded with a laugh.
“Me and Milo are in the same business,” Bell said. “We’re both entertainers.”
He told The Santa Clara that he distances himself from the term “provocateur” because he goes beyond just provoking. He aims to actually engage with the people he talks to, whether that’s Bill Maher or Richard Spencer.
His Emmy-award winning show “United Shades of America” sends him around the country to places where “a black guy goes places either he shouldn’t go, or you wouldn’t expect him to go,” to have the difficult conversations he believes are necessary for exploring this divided nation.
According to Bell, the national and political division in America are nothing new. “This country was founded on a divide,” he said, before going on to note a variety of examples of a divided America, including the slave trade (dividing black and white) and the interactions between Native Americans and European colonists (divisions based on conquered land).
Those divisions are not what they used to be. “What Trump calls the ‘right’ has not always been the ‘right,’” Bell said.
He notes that in the past, right-wing politics have been primarily concerned with economic conservatism, with social views being more of a byproduct of economic belief. According to Bell, that has changed. Now, political standings are “all about perspective.”
Identity politics, defined as the tendency of a particular racial, religious or other social groups to form political alliances, are a major factor in developing political ideology.
Some people feel the need to ensure the country stays how they see fit. Bell’s goal is to allow groups to articulate their perspectives on a national platform. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan, that means expressing the desire for a white, Christian America.
In the pilot episode of “United Shades of America,” Bell and an Imperial Wizard of the Klan meet on a dark road somewhere in Arkansas. The moment they approached each other was otherworldly. Bell balanced a posture of dignity and composure with a hint of playful satire, as he attempted to highlight the blatant irony in his interaction with one of the highest ranking members of the Klan. Some progress was even made—the Klan member seemed to like Bell’s idea of adding mouth holes to their hoods for easier speech.
Aside from his joking behavior, Bell also asks the Klan leader about the reasoning behind the organization’s beliefs, giving the group their moment to express their views outside the context of hotly contested rallies and marches.
Bell’s interviews are not limited to fringe groups. The people he meets come from a variety of social, political, racial and economic backgrounds. These are groups that some audience members seldom interact with.
His show gives the viewer a window into the daily lives and the opinions held by those people. Bell serves as a mediator between the audience and the people around the nation who need to be heard if Americans are to resolve our divisions. From Bell’s perspective, education and interaction, rather than combativeness and isolation, are the keys to unity.
In addition to “United Shades of America,” Bell is politically active through his various podcasts, as well as a book entitled “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’ 4”, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian,” in which he “tackles a wide range of issues” from the state of law enforcement today to his upbringing, and finding his own unique comedic voice.
He is also a contributing writer on CNN, where he goes more indepth with many of the same issues he explores on his show.
His podcast “Politically ReActive,” co-hosted with fellow comedian and long-time friend Hari Kondabolu, is in its second season and also addresses current political issues.
In light of the divisive nature of the last election and the current administration, people like Bell are just the influence that college campuses need.
He is a problem-solver, a go-getter and somebody willing to reach “way across the aisle.”
“College campuses are a place for rigorous thought,” Bell said. In a campus environment that has become increasingly politically heated, open debate and conversation pose a potential solution to the national division that is reflected on a smaller scale at Santa Clara.
Bell’s position as mediator can alleviate some of the difficulty in starting discussion and debate.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.